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World Hong Kong retreat on extradition bill reveals cracks in Chinese invincibility, critics say

The crush of people in black T-shirts that marched on Hong Kong streets over the last week accomplished something many global leaders could not. They caused Beijing to blink.

Now, as Chinese authorities reconsider their approach to Hong Kong following a stunning retreat on a controversial extradition bill, activists and observers say what has happened in this place on the edge of China may embolden others to respond to Beijing’s bid to expand its influence.

China under President Xi Jinping has seemed “unstoppable,” said Baggio Leung, an activist who has advocated for independence from China. He was himself initially convinced that opposing the extradition bill was a lost cause. “I think 99 per cent of people didn’t think we would succeed,” he said. When it comes to pushing back against Beijing, “in the past 10 or 20 years, we have kept losing.”

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Instead, amid a public revolt that choked downtown with what is believed to be the largest protest march in the city’s history, Hong Kong’s leadership has postponed consideration of the bill. Carrie Lam, the region’s Beijing-appointed chief executive, had pushed for the legislation, which would have eased the ability of mainland Chinese authorities to extradite from Hong Kong people they considered serious criminals. On Monday, one of Ms. Lam’s top advisers, Bernard Chan, declared the bill indefinitely suspended and effectively dead.

The battle over the extradition bill marks ”a turning point” for those questioning how to respond to an increasingly assertive China, said Mr. Leung. It shows “that we can still win.”

Ms. Lam has sought to shield Beijing from responsibility for the extradition bill, repeatedly saying she was not operating at the behest of Beijing, but it was clear she had backing from the central government. Before it was suspended, authorities in Beijing offered staunch support, while state media dismissed protesters as pawns of foreign interests bent on damaging China. Before suspending the bill, Ms. Lam spoke with representatives of China’s central government. Protesters have attacked her as a “puppet” of Beijing, which has brought new pressures to bear on Hong Kong under Mr. Xi.

Pro-democracy leaders have been jailed and banned from political participation, the government has introduced legislation to criminalize mockery of the Chinese anthem and a handful of people considered dangerous to the Communist Party have disappeared, only to reappear in China.

Now, the downfall of the extradition bill suggests “it’s time to push back,” against Chinese influence, said Feng Chongyi, a historian of contemporary China at the University of Technology Sydney.

“Democracies won Cold War One against the Soviet Union. But they have not had the courage to fight Cold War Two, which China has been fighting unilaterally for several decades,” Prof. Feng said. As a result, “Chinese power has grown bigger and bigger, greater and greater,” he said.

But “if democracies united themselves against this aggression by the Chinese Communist Party, of course they can do it,” Prof. Feng said.

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Since he became China’s top leader in 2012, Mr. Xi has overseen a sweeping expansion of the power of the Communist Party, silencing critics at home while asserting China’s agenda abroad in ways not seen since imperial days.

In repelling the extradition bill, however, demonstrators in Hong Kong have added cracks to the myth of Chinese impregnability – an achievement that coincides with rising worry in the United States, Europe and elsewhere about Beijing’s desire to challenge Western power, undermine liberal norms and spread its authoritarian model.

Hong Kong is “the canary in the coal mine,” said Erin O’Toole, Canada’s foreign affairs critic. “As the Communist Party exerts greater control over the state, corporations and the people of China, we should increase the degree of caution exercised when it comes to engagement,” he said.

Moments after emerging from prison Monday, Joshua Wong, the most prominent young democracy activist in Hong Kong, also urged foreign governments to “support activists in Hong Kong that face prosecution” and police violence. Released a month early from imprisonment for contempt of court, Mr. Wong called for Ms. Lam to resign, and pledged to join ongoing protests.

On June 9, more than a million people took to the streets, organizers estimated. On June 12, tens of thousands of demonstrators armed with water bottles and bricks provided a vivid image of squaring off against Chinese-backed authorities when they clashed with Hong Kong police, who responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and baton charges.

A week later, on Sunday, organizers said nearly two million people joined a march to demand Ms. Lam’s resignation and an investigation into the use of force by police. That was equal to more than a quarter of the region’s population, assembled in a vast repudiation of Beijing, whose politically controlled courts and authoritarian control many in the city reject. (Police crowd-size estimates were substantially lower.)

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Beijing has so far stood stalwart with Ms. Lam; the state-run China Daily, in an editorial published late Sunday, said central government backing for her and her government will “not waver, not in the face of street violence nor the ill-intentioned interventions of foreign governments.”

Another Communist Party-run publication, the Global Times, warned that dissent in Hong Kong would only strengthen Chinese resolve elsewhere. If Washington “thinks playing the Hong Kong card can force China to make compromises in trade negotiations with the U.S., it had better think twice. The riots in Hong Kong will only consolidate Beijing’s tough stance against Washington,” the paper said, in an opinion piece by Ai Jun, a homonym for “love the military” that is often used to sign articles denouncing foreign critics.

But the apparent demise of the extradition bill has also caused soul-searching in Beijing. “The central government in the long run will become more cautious and careful,” said Shi Yinhong, the director of the American Studies Institute at Renmin University who is also an adviser to the State Council, China’s cabinet.

Ms. Lam has said she would spend more time listening to public opinion. “That represents where the central government will go,” Prof. Shi said. “As the chief executive has said, they will listen to the opinions of the general public.”

Others said the spectre of the Beijing-appointed Ms. Lam backing down on a major piece of legislation had exposed deeper problems. Chinese leadership regularly promotes the idea of a “community with shared future for mankind,” a notion “that reflects China’s lofty aspirations” to wield global influence, said Bao Tong, a former senior party functionary who is now an outspoken critic.

But “if the Communist Party doesn’t know the reason why people in Hong Kong fought back, it’s dereliction of duty. If they do know, it is their arrogance that has led to these consequences,” said Mr. Bao.

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“What Beijing needs to do is to deeply reconsider its own behaviour, policies and mindset.”

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